I was recently asked this question by the president-elect of my state school library association. With all that I have written over the years, it should be easy for me to answer, and yet I didn’t have a ready response. How would I define leadership?
After much thinking, I decided that leadership is the ability to move people and programs in a specifically chosen direction with a goal in mind. The answer is as simple as the question but raises additional and more complex questions. What are the behaviors and skills needed to move people in that new direction?
Visionary – If you are going to move people and programs in a new direction, you must know where you want to go. In the words of the immortal philosopher, Yogi Berra, “if you don’t know where you are going, you’re going to arrive at someplace else.” You can’t be a leader unless you are a Visionary.
Hopefully, you have a Vision Statement for your library in addition to a Mission Statement. That will always be a guide for you in planning. While this sounds like it must be huge, you are the one who has the Vision, and it can be any size that meets your needs. It’s the Vision – and your commitment to it – that matters.
Communicator – To accomplish your Vision, you need to get others to support it. Whether it’s an administrator’s approval or getting people to work with you (or both of these), you must convince and inspire them to see the value of your Vison. How well you frame your message, to whom and how you send it, depends on your skill as a Communicator.
This starts with knowing the preferred communication method of the receiver of your message. Show how your concept will fit into their wants, needs, and possibly their vision. Have your plan ready to go. Consider what supporting information you will need, but don’t inundate the receiver until you get agreement.
Relationship Builder – You can’t lead if no one follows. Unless you give orders based on your position – such as a principal – people follow those with whom they have a relationship. Leaders reach out to others regularly. Trust and empathy are integral to their behavior. They hone it as a skill, knowing its value.
Library leaders recognize the importance of cultivating relationships across disciplines. The broader the range of people with whom they have relationships, the easier it is to launch a project and get support. Those taking part know their work will be appreciated and acknowledged.
Flexible – Leaders are planners, but they are also flexible. They recognize that the larger the project, the more chances there are for things to not go as expected. The vision they are holding is about the outcome, not necessarily how it specifically will look during the process.
I have worked on two library renovation projects and was expected to lead the way on the design and implementation. Neither of them looked the way I had expected when it was completed, but both functioned as I had intended. They met my Vision.
Courageous – Good leaders lead from the front. It means everyone is watching you in some way, and yes, that feels risky. There is no guarantee of success. In fact, you are bound to fail sometimes. Whether in small parts which flexibility can fix, or with a project that doesn’t materialize, a leader takes responsibility for the consequences.
But leaders are also aware that the only failure is quitting. How you react to setbacks is an indicator of your commitment to leadership. You clean things up as best you can. Commend the work of any participants. Assess what went wrong and what you learned. And after taking some quiet time to lick your wounds, you try again.
Leadership can be scary, but it’s far better than having others direct your path. These behaviors and skills can be mastered in slow stages and grown over time. Start small and build. You will learn as you go. Find mentors. Ask for help. The most important first step is making a commitment to being a leader and then following through.